by J L Higgs
The water’s surface was still and smooth as a table top. Not a ripple. The eight sat waiting silently in the middle of the lake, their blue and white sweat suits buffering the effect of the chill in the fall air. Megaphone in hand, Sal faced them. While most coxswains had converted to microphones attached to an amplifying speaker, Sal relied on the ancient megaphone.
In a crew boat, the coxswain was lord and master from the moment of arrival at the boathouse until departure. But with Sal? Despite being small in stature, on campus, the boathouse, or even a casual encounter at the city shopping mall, one sharp look could wither the toughest of men.
That afternoon’s practice had begun in typical fashion. As the team arrived at the boathouse, Sal immediately barked orders. The non-stop rapid-fire commands, lifting the shell, carrying it to the dock, placing it in the water, and climbing in had roared from the megaphone.
“Y’know,” said Bobby to Steve as he carried his oar to his seat in the bow. “There are times I’d like to cram that megaphone up Sal’s ass.”
Steve had chuckled. Bobby, Sal, and Steve were the only seniors on the team. This would be their final year together in the boat. Back at the start of their freshman year, Bobby had been the one who’d recruited Sal to be coxswain. And she had proven to be a serious taskmaster. For four years she’d challenged, no demanded, that anyone occupying a seat in the boat pursue excellence. The relentless quest required sacrifice and a total commitment to teamwork. Along with that came a building of trust, belief, and faith in one another. At times, some had balked or complained about being pushed beyond what they believed they could endure. But driven by Sal, the team’s results were unassailable. Over the four years, they’d compiled the best record in the school’s history.
“All eight ready to row.”
The eight slid their seats forward, wheels rolling on the slides, legs bending until positioned like sharply peaked tents. Bodies coiled, arms outstretched, oar blades poised above the water, tension rippled through their muscles.
With exacting precision developed through countless hours of practice, all eight blades broke the water’s surface in sync. From Catch through Drive, Finish, and Recovery the eight rowed in perfect harmony. At stroke, Steve established a smooth steady rhythm, allowing the team to warm up in a calm and controlled manner.
Behind Steve, Conor, a head and shoulder talker, rowed seven. After him, in the first seat of the engine room, sat his roommate, John, who served as unofficial interpreter of Conor’s shrugs, raised eyebrows and head shakes. Though freshmen, The Miller Twins occupied the seats in the center of the engine room. Huge for their age and muscle-bound, they provided the boat’s thrust. Then came Mack, the last of the engine room, Sully, and Bobby in the bow. As Bowman, Bobby’s responsibilities included remaining constantly aware of the boat’s position on the water along with Sal.
Launching forward with each successive stroke, the boat appeared to move in a series of repetitive lunges. But to the eight, its run felt like a long smooth glide. Perpendicular oars slicing into the water. Feet pushing against the footrests on the stretchers. Legs extending, arms drawing the blades through the water as they pulled toward the sternum. Bodies uncoiling into layback position. Blades emerging, hands moving away from the body and past the knees. Legs bending, pulling the coiling body forward, while oars rotated in the locks feathering the blades horizontal to the water. Then rotating the blades to vertical, regaining the starting position for a stroke. A fluid coordinated graceful motion repeated over and over again. The rower’s swing, pure poetry, and artistic beauty.
As the boat passed beneath a bridge, people crossing it on foot hailed the crew team. The eight bobbed their heads in acknowledgment while continuing to maintain their pace. With the boat moving almost effortlessly and the sun setting, though they were unaware, they were experiencing one of life’s rare perfect moments. A moment that could never be re-experienced as it had actually existed at that time and only the minutest fragment of it would survive buried deep within their memories.
Ahead on the lake a high school team was practicing. Their school’s red and yellow colors appeared each time their curved spoon-shaped blades emerged from the water. Sal urged the eight onward, the distance between the boats steadily shrinking. When the boats drew alongside each other, she smiled at the other coxswain and yelled, “Power 10!”
In an instant, Steve increased his stroke speed. The rest of the eight followed his lead and the boat shot off. Challenge issued, in response, the coxswain of the high school boat shouted to his crew and the race was on. Oars thrashed the water. Spray landed on the rowers and in the shells as meters passed without either boat gaining the advantage.
As the racing shells approached the second bridge over the lake, Sal yelled, “Sprint!”
Matching her cadence, Steve’s tempo bordered on the frenetic. Oars dipped, emerged, and rotated at a torturous pace as hearts and muscles flooded by adrenaline strained.
With the eight throwing themselves into propelling their boat faster and faster they began to pull away. Though game, the high schoolers were over-matched. They fell further and further behind until they completely lost contact with the college boat.
Seeing the high school boat was soundly defeated, Sal called out, “Let it run.” And the eight stopped rowing. In their determination to outdistance the high schoolers, Sal and the eight had gone well beyond the furthermost point they’d ever traveled on the lake. Now, not a single other boat was in sight.
Bodies draped over their oar handles, blades buoying on the water, the rowers’ chests heaved as they gasped for breath. Steve coughed uncontrollably. Sully bent down, yanked loose the laces of his right shoe, stretched out his leg, and rubbed the thick knot in his calf.
“What the fuck, Sallie,” exploded Bobby.
“Oh, shut up and stop whining, Bobby,” she answered.
“Hey! Just, stop it,” said Steve, his head swiveling between the two of them as Bobby shot Sal the finger.
Conor shook his head. John stretched his back and shoulders and Mack checked with Sully, who said he was fine. Only The Miller Twins remained still and silent as statues awaiting what was next. With order and calm restored, Sal told the starboard side group to row and the port side group to hold steady. Then, after shifting the rudder to complete the turnaround maneuver, she commanded all eight to row.
As the team began its journey back to the dock, the sun slipped below the horizon and a light headwind started to blow. With their clothing soaked with sweat and lake water, the crew rowed leisurely. The wind gradually picked up force and a light rain began to fall. Its drops peppered the lake’s surface stirring the water and creating millions of ever-expanding circles on its surface. Drops landing in the boat produced a steady thumping beat on their way to their final resting place in its bottom.
The rain’s intensity continued to increase. Though they continued rowing, it was as if the water was spiraling around them. Beneath the sodden sweats that clung to them like a dead weight, the crew members’ bodies turned cold. In the bottom of the boat, the water continued to rise until it sloshed back and forth over their bound feet. Stroke after stroke they clung to silence, each refusing to acknowledge in words what they all knew. With the boat riding so low in the water they were in danger of sinking. If it swamped they’d be racing against time to escape what could be a watery grave.
Around them, the lake roiled and churned. Its dark threatening swells buffeted the boat. The lack of visibility was disorienting. The way back home unclear. Maintaining coordination and rhythm became a struggle as they all slowly dragged the boat on. Feeling his calf muscle clench, Sully shifted his weight. The sudden movement tipped the boat’s delicate balance and his oar dug too deep into the water. With its blade acting like a panicky applied brake, he caught a crab. The force of the boat’s momentum whipped the oar handle from his hands and slammed it into his chest, almost knocking him out of the boat.
All coordination lost, the team’s oars floundered. The boat pitched and rolled, almost capsizing, before righting itself to bob unsteadily in the water.
“Way enough. Stabilize!” yelled Sal, determined to impose order upon chaos. “Sully?”
“I’m good,” he replied, having regained control of his oar and holding its blade steady on the water.
Sal stared at the menacing water. “We either take her home or ditch and swim for it.”
Take us home, Sal came the weary replies.
She rattled off commands and the tired crew began rowing in tandem once again. Cold and exhausted, each pull of their oars through the murky water was like a Sisyphean task. Though struggling, they each silently resolved to themselves not to falter.
When they finally reached the dock, Sal exited and held onto the stern while the eight left their seats. Once the entire crew was standing on the dock, they laid down their oars. Sal had them lift the shell, carry it back to the boathouse, and load it onto its rack. Then the crew went to retrieve their oars.
Megaphone still in hand, Sal stared at the rain pelting the lake. They’d made it home. Quickly, without warning, Bobby grabbed and tossed Sal into the air. Arms and legs flailing frantically, she cannonballed into the lake with a large splash.
Surfacing and still holding onto the megaphone, Sal was greeted by eight smirks. “You guys are such assholes! I only get thrown in if we’ve won a race!”
Loud laughter immediately replaced the smirks. Bobby walked to the edge of the dock, leaned down, and extended a hand to Sal. Snatching his hand, she yanked it, and Bobby toppled into the water. Laughing, Sal leaped on Bobby, wrapped her arms around her boyfriend’s head, and holding it to her breasts, shoved it below the surface of the water.
J L Higgs’s short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in over 20 magazines, including Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He currently resides outside of Boston.